Ethical Performance
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UN’s human rights chief says norms are a long way off

February 2008

The United Nations high commissioner for human rights has warned that it is unrealistic to think the UN will produce binding norms on corporate responsibility in the near future – and says a voluntary compliance scheme that has companies’ backing might be a better medium-term alternative.

Louise Arbour said last month that UN norms setting out the responsibilities of business could not be expected for the next few years at least, noting that ‘it took two decades to get a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’. John Ruggie, the UN secretary-general’s special representative on business and human rights, is likely to produce a final report in June on what action the UN might take to address the human rights impacts of multinationals.

He was appointed after a UN subcommittee published draft norms that were welcomed by non-governmental organizations but upset business interests.

Ruggie appears to have decided that the norms are essentially unworkable in their present form, and Arbour warned that NGOs supporting them should be prepared to consider other mechanisms, at least in the short to medium term.

‘It would be frankly very ambitious to promote only binding norms, considering how long this would take and how much damage could be done in the meantime,’ said Arbour. ‘So if there is a way of enlisting the corporate sector towards some sort of voluntary – I’d call it some sort of voluntary-plus – compliance… then this has to be encouraged while one continues to reflect on what these binding norms would actually look like.’ She said she did not favour a form of norms that would be ‘purely voluntary with absolutely no downside risk, no monitoring, no exposure’.

Arbour, whose remarks have been published online in a full transcript of an interview with the Financial Times, said she did not discount the eventual need for ‘something a little more substantial’ than voluntary UN-sponsored agreements such as the Global Compact. But the Compact had shown how ‘anything that is promotional will generate more interest than anything that requires something more compliance-driven’, she added.

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